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Kofi Annan to Visit Arakan State Next Week

Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. (Photo: Reuters)

By Moe Myint, The Irrawaddy

RANGOON — Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan will arrive in Burma on Sunday and visit Arakan State on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week, to introduce his role as chair of the new Arakan State Advisory Commission to local Buddhist and Muslim stakeholders, according to Arakan State government secretary U Tin Maung Swe.

Kofi Annan is expected to meet the Arakan National Party (ANP), the largest party in Arakan State, which represents the interests of the Buddhist majority and has taken a hard line against the largely stateless Rohingya Muslim community, which suffered from anti-Muslim violence in 2012 and 2013 and remains largely segregated from Buddhist communities in the state, with restrictions placed on their movement.

However, ANP general-secretary U Tun Aung Kyaw, who is currently attending the Union Peace Conference in Naypyidaw, told The Irrawaddy over the phone that the party had not yet received a formal request for a meeting with the new commission.

Muslim commission member Al Haj Aye Lwin, founder of interfaith group Religions for Peace, said he knew Kofi Annan would be arriving in Burma early next week, but claimed not to know any further details.

The State Counselor’s Office under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi earlier announced that a memorandum of understanding would be signed with the Kofi Annan Foundation within one month, paving the way for the participation of the global statesman in efforts to resolve the communal conflict in Arakan State.

Al Haj Aye Lwin commented to the intention of the new advisory committee to consult closely with local stakeholders: “Without meeting with locals, it won’t work.”

U Zaw Zaw, a resident of Aung Mingalar ward—a restricted Muslim enclave within the state capitalof  Sittwe—who identifies as Rohingya, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that local community heads had been verbally informed on Tuesday by authorities about Kofi Annan’s visit. Local Muslim residents are now preparing to meet with him.

He said they would explain to Kofi Annan they are not illegal migrants from Bangladesh, or “Bengalis”—as they are called by Arakanese Buddhists, sections of the government, and much of the Burmese public—and how they are denied citizenship, freedom of movement and unrestricted access to healthcare and education.

However, U Zaw Zaw said that doubts had begun to circulate within the local Muslim community over the ability of Kofi Annan and the commission to solve the problems they face.

“Residents are talking like nothing will change here. They are without hope,’’ he said.

He said that Kofi Annan follows in the footsteps of many global celebrities, foreign ambassadors and human rights groups who have visited them over the past four years—to no effect.

He mentioned that the previous government had also formed a commission on Arakan State, which had led to no improvements, as a further cause for doubt.

“We have been living for four years in the same condition. Nothing has changed, even though many ambassadors have visited,” U Zaw Zaw said. “It is hard to say whether we trust or distrust the commission.”

Since the Arakan State Advisory Commission was announced on Aug. 24, several political parties, including the ANP and the Union Solidarity and Development Party, have called for its cancellation or the removal of the international members, on the grounds that they could not be expected to understand the local context in Arakan State, or that their involvement amounted to interference in Burma’s “internal affairs.”

The ANP have said the commission would harm the rights of the “indigenous” people of Arakan State, referring to the Buddhist Arakanese majority.  On Tuesday, ANP Lower House lawmaker U Aung Kyaw San submitted an urgent parliamentary proposal calling for the three foreign members to be replaced with local academics.

The other international members of the commission are Ghassan Salamé, a scholar from Lebanon and former advisor to Kofi Annan, and Laetitia van den Assum, a diplomat from the Netherlands and a former advisor to UNAIDS. The other six members are from Burma, with two Buddhist Arakanese members, two Muslim members (from Rangoon rather than Arakan State) and two government representatives.